The Lighthouse Road
by Peter Geye
280 pages (Kindle)
Towering pines. Cresting swells. Ravenous men and wolves. Logging teams working the ice road and whiskey runners avoiding the shipping channel. This desperate wilderness becomes the backdrop to a biography of the immigrant experience in Peter Geye’s new novel, The Lighthouse Road.
In his second novel set on Lake Superior, Geye recounts three generations of Minnesotan settlers at the turn of the twentieth century. Shifting between parallel accounts, we anticipate the legacies and shortcomings of each generation as they deal with those of their forebears. Thea Eide, newly arrived from her Norwegian home shore into circumstances far from friendly, finds herself pregnant with a son she will never know. She is vulnerable, but with a deep well of courage. Odd Eide, raised by the tiny village of Gunflint at the edge of Gitchee Gumee, has gifts he can’t yet measure and ideals he’s not yet tested. But he is coming into his own as a fisherman and boatwright, vowing to keep his own son from becoming an orphan too.
Connecting these lives are characters realized with complexity and compassion. Hosea—savior and sinner, protector and predator. Rebekeh—tender-hearted but calloused by her sour knowledge of the world. Danny—a blood brother to lose an eye for. Sargent—hard working and God-fearing, an evangelist with a chisel in his hands. The people in Odd’s heritage feel real; and they’re as life-giving and dangerous as the sea that brought them together.
Where Geye’s first novel tells a father-son story, The Lighthouse Road focuses on a mother’s love for her newborn son, a young man’s complicated relationship with the only woman he has ever known, and a woman’s struggle to define herself on her own terms. It’s about ideals and illusions, hopes for the future vs. scars from the past, and what it means to haunted by the subzero woods and the lonely presence of others.
In addition to the unique characters and unusual chronology, Geye’s quiet style leaves a surprisingly powerful mark. Moments of joy and tenderness soften the blows of cruelty and insurmountable pain. Natural elements of weather and landscape mirror the characters’ shifting experiences. Technical details of the fisherman’s, boatwright’s and surgeon’s trades ground the narrative in authenticity. But it’s all handled with a light hand that makes the construction fade away in favor of the characters and their encounters.
The Lighthouse Road takes more risks than Safe from the Sea (which I loved) but lives up to these promises. Heavier editing on a few scenes (like the sled ride to pick up the guard dogs for the logging camp) would have tightened the first part of the book and evened the pacing, but even as is, it stands up to a second reading.
A beautiful—if somewhat sad—adventure in the settling of the Upper Midwest, Geye’s new novel will appeal to Jack London fans, maritime enthusiasts, historians, and anyone who wonders what life was really like for their immigrant ancestors.